On a recent episode of Thursdays at Three, Robert McBride spoke with the members of the Miró Quartet about how they analyze the music that they play. Violinist Daniel Chang explained that they, as a group, do not analyze music on a theoretical level so-to-speak, instead, they look at the construction of a piece to determine how they want to convey it emotionally.
When we pull apart music and analyze it there are very few restrictions on the diction we can use to describe it. When examining music technically we might discuss its timbre, melodic configuration, or rhythmic patterns. When we discuss music’s emotional elements we might say that it is joyful, morose, cavalier, or demure – anything really – because music is an extension of one’s self, and it has the ability to take on the qualities and characteristics of the people who create it. But what does it mean when we use the expression “colorful” to describe a piece of music? For some, it may indicate the variety of tones or movement in a piece, but for others, “colorful” might actually be referring to the visual color and light produced by a piece of music. This sensory experience is known as chromesthesia – which is a type of synesthesia – and it is not entirely uncommon.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where a sense becomes evoked when another is engaged; some people with synesthesia might associate colors with certain days of the week, or perhaps certain words have a behavior attached to them. Chromesthesia is the most common form of synesthesia, and it occurs when someone sees fluctuating color and light that corresponds with auditory stimulation. Washington based artist Sherise Mckinney, describes her experience with synesthesia as, “seeing with my ears.” Unlike hallucinations, the colors, sounds, and images that people experience with synesthesia in no way compromises their ability to see, it is more like a presence in the back of their mind that they are aware of. The experience is so natural that many people never realize they have any form of synesthesia.
(“Giving In” by Sherise Mckinney)
It should come as no surprise that many people who live with synesthesia have become artists. Miles Davis had synesthesia, as did Jean Sibelius. When Liszt was the resident Kapellmeister in Weimar, Germany, he made reference to the colors that he associated with the music, and was quoted saying, “gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!”
For the most part, people with any form of synesthesia experience it in different ways. Karl Ekman describes Sibelius’ experience with chromesthesia in his book “Jean Sibelius” as:
…a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear – every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as a color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory.
I’ve been interested in chromesthesia for several years now, so when I recently happened across the synesthesia inspired artwork of Sherise Mckinney, I reached out to her in hopes of learning about her experience as an artist. Mainly, I wanted to know how she would describe her experience to someone without synesthesia. She graciously obliged, and explained that she hears sounds “as they project images and colors into [her] brain”, and that “high contrast” and “juxtaposition of color” tend to make the biggest impression. Sherise clarified that, while not all of the sounds she sees are beautiful, “The bonus of having [synesthesia] is that I happen to be an artist, and can turn beautiful sounds into pictures […] it’s not technical, it’s pure emotion.”
Part of why music is so wonderful is because of its many facets; it can flex to convey any emotion we experience, and we can analyze it technically until we have broken it down to every triplet and quarter rest. Regardless of how we describe our experience with music, there is no doubt that it has a profound impact on our lives.
Ekman, Karl, and Edward Birse. Jean Sibelius, His Life and Personality. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1938. Print.
Mahling, F. (1926). Das Problem der ‘Audition colorée: Eine historische-kritische Untersuchung . Archiv für die Gesamte Psychologie. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft M.B.H.
Featured image is “You Seem so Very Far” by Sherise Mckinney
If you have had an experience with chromesthesia that you would like to share, I would love to write a follow up article including your story. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org subject line: Synesthesia